By Donal Ware
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — It is championship Saturday.
For the second-straight year, the defending Boxtorow HBCU national champion Winston-Salem State Rams will take on Elizabeth City State in the CIAA football championship game in Durham, N.C.
Meanwhile, Tuskegee and Fort Valley State make their first appearances in the SIAC championship game in Atlanta.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff has clinched the SWAC’s Western Division, while Bethune-Cookman can claim its second MEAC crown in three years with a win over Savannah State.
Also a matchup in the SWAC’s Eastern Division between Alabama A&M and Jackson State could determine who will face the Golden Lions in the SWAC championship game on December 8 in Birmingham.
CIAA Championship Game Preview — Elizabeth City State Vikings (7-3) vs. Winston-Salem State Rams (10-0)
Some say this year’s Winston-Salem State team is better than last year’s team that went 13-1 and made it all the way to the NCAA Division II national semifinals.
After seeing them play last Saturday in their 41-8 victory over Fayetteville State, I am not so sure. I do know they are a very good football team.
It starts with their offense and quarterback Kameron Smith.
A Boxtorow preseason All-American who on Monday was named the CIAA’s Offensive Player of the Year, Smith is completing 61 percent of his passed for 2,710 yards with 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His yards and touchdown passes are more this year than in 14 games last year.
Smith has an outstanding receiving corps, led by All-CIAA performer Jahuann Butler who has 43 receptions for 863 yards and 12 touchdowns.
While Butler has 43 receptions, head coach Connell Maynor’s offensive scheme is to spread the ball around to different receivers and Smith has done that as three other receivers have caught 20 or more passes.
A strong running game aids the offense and the Rams have four backs they can use in Maurice Lewis (104-558-9), Brandon McDonald (57-314-2), Bryce Sherman (42-177-1) and DeQuann Leak (25-166-1).
Smith also has the ability to run the football gaining 288 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The Rams defense is very solid.
WSSU only gives up 82 yards rushing per game, and the strength of Elizabeth City State is running the football.
The Rams are susceptible to the pass however giving up almost 200 yards per game. CIAA Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Carlos Fields leads the unit.
The Vikings have once again relied on running back Daront’e McNeill this year and he has delivered throughout the course of the season.
He rushed for over 1,600 yards last year and his numbers are not as gaudy, but he has rushed for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging a career-low 4.1 yards per carry.
The Vikings had to replace all five starters on the offensive line from a year ago and the unit has been beset by injuries and has been a work in progress all season long.
Vikings head coach Waverly Tillar indicated that he has gotten more from quarterback Namon Jones this year than he expected and Jones has been efficient, completing close to 60 percent of his passes for 1,971 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions.
With the Rams expecting the Vikings to run the ball (3-to-1 ratio run to pass), look for a more balanced attack and for Jones to throw the ball a lot more than he has overall this season. Twice this year has attempted 44 passes in a game.
The ECSU defense is a lot better than the stats indicate. They have playmakers such as All-CIAA defensive back Nigel Rios who has registered 67 tackles (52 solo), 10 tackles for loss and an interception returned 94 yards for a touchdown which proved to be the game winner against Virginia Union, which clinched the Northern Division for the Vikings.
All-CIAA defensive end Brad Davis is third in the conference in sacks (13.5) while raking up 19.5 tackles for loss.
He is going to need some help pressuring Smith if the Rams decide to double team him.
I think the Rams will win, but the game will be close — and closer than last year’s 38-18 Rams victory.
Note: This could be the last game of the season for the Vikings. Tillar, who sits on the NCAA Division II Football Committee stated that even with a win, it would probably not be enough to propel the Vikings into the playoffs.
There is always the Pioneer Bowl which pits the SIAC representative against the CIAA representative on December 1 in Columbus, Ga. but typically teams from the CIAA that have played in the championship game are not selected to represent the conference.
Listen to the game on Classics Sports Radio Network by logging onto www.boxtorow.com or www.boxtorow.com/classicsportsradio.
SIAC Championship Game Preview — Fort Valley State (8-2) vs. Tuskegee (8-1)
Two wins last Saturday by both teams propelled each into the championship game.
FVSU knocked off perennial power Albany State 38-20 while the Golden Tigers defeated defending champion Miles 27-17.
FVSU and Tuskegee met earlier in the season with the Golden Tigers destroying the Wildcats 49-18.
The Golden Tigers forced Wildcats quarterback Antonio Henton into four interceptions, while racking up a season high 671 yards of total offense. Henton is playing much better and has thrown nine touchdowns and no interceptions in his last four games.
Tuskegee stopped big play wide receiver Chris Slaughter holding him to three receptions for 25 yards, but with him and Henton on the same page, they are going to have to find a way to slow him down.
FVSU is going to have to rely more on Henton and the passing game as the Wildcats found it difficult to run in the win over Albany State and only ran for 116 yards in the first meeting against TU.
Meanwhile, the Golden Tigers are relinquishing less than 100 yards rushing per game.
Tuskegee had no problems running the ball against FVSU, raking up 447 yards on the ground. Derrick Washington had a field day with 17 carries for 218 yards and two touchdowns.
If FVSU is able to somewhat contain Washington and that rushing attack, TU is going to have to throw the ball which hasn’t been their best option.
It’s not the worse option either. Coach Willie Slater runs a two-quarterback set with Justin Nared and Rashard Burkette who have combined to complete 51 percent of their passes for 1,301 yards six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Despite being blown out the first time, I believe the Wildcats will make adjustments and use their opportunistic defense (has forced 34 turnovers this season) to pull off the upset in a close game.
Boxtorow National Game of the Week — Alabama A&M (7-2, 6-2) vs. Jackson State (5-4, 5-2)
This matchup will go a long way to determining who will win the SWAC’s Eastern Division and who will take on Arkansas-Pine Bluff, who clinched the Western Division last week, in the SWAC championship game.
If Alabama A&M beats Jackson State on Saturday and Alabama State loses to Southern, the Bulldogs will clinch.
A loss by the Bulldogs and they are eliminated.
If Alabama State beats Southern and Jackson State loses to Alabama A&M or Alcorn State in their last game, the Hornets will clinch.
A loss on Saturday to Southern will eliminate Alabama State.
If Jackson State defeats Alabama A&M and Alabama State loses to Southern, JSU will clinch. JSU can also clinch the title by beating both A&M and Alcorn State. If Alabama State beats Southern, and JSU beats AAMU, the Tigers will have to beat Alcorn to claim the East.
Did you get all that?
After a 6-0 start, the Bulldogs have struggled the last three weeks, with a surprise loss to Alcorn State, a loss to Alabama State in the Magic City Classic and struggled to get a 24-23 overtime victory over Southern at home.
During the 6-0 start quarterback Deaunte Mason completed nearly seventy percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
He looked like the best player in HBCU football.
In the last three games Maosn is completing just 47 percent of his passes and is gaining just 5.2 yards per pass attempt with just two touchdowns and four interceptions.
The struggles on offense aren’t just with Mason.
After gaining 205 yards against Alcorn State, running back Kaderius Lacey has just 123 yards in the last two games.
With the season is on the line for the Bulldogs, this game is a must win to keep their season alive and the offense must produce.
Jackson State on the other hand is playing good football. The Tigers defeated Alabama State 37-34 on a field goal as the clock expired three weeks ago and shellacked Grambling State 53-17 last week.
Offensively the Tigers put up 408 yards of total offense per game which is second in the SWAC.
It is a balanced offense to say the least, led by quarterback Clayton Moore who has started the last three games.
He leads the Tigers in rushing (485 yards) and rushing touchdowns (9) and over the last three games is completing 52 percent of his passes for 657 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 216 yards and four touchdowns.
Moore has two capable backs to hand the ball off to in Tommy Gooden (79-476-3) and Rakeem Sims (93-437-5).
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Bulldogs defense is Tigers wide receiver Rico Richardson.
Bulldogs head coach Anthony Jones said earlier in the week that you are not going to stop Richardson you have to try to contain him.
The numbers speak for themselves — 50 receptions, 922 yards, 18.4 yards per reception, eight touchdowns.
Both of these defenses are solid, ranking third and fourth in the SWAC in total defense.
I believe this will be a close game coming down to the wire and whichever defense gets the last stop will win the game.
Editor's Note: Donal Ware is one of the leading voices in Historically Black College and University football. His Boxtorow.com website, popular articles for such publications as Jet magazine and regular radio shows for such networks as Sirius/XM have given him a high profile in the college and professional sports world. You can read more of his material at Boxtorow.com